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Alabama Inmate Says The State Needs A Different Approach To Deal With Violence


Nowadays, your listener feedback usually comes in the form of a tweet or an email or a message on Facebook. But every once in a while, we still get a real posted letter.


This story is about one of those letters. Printed neatly in all caps, it begins - Audie Cornish, I am an inmate in the Alabama Department of Corrections and an avid listener of NPR News. So we got the writer on the phone - collect call from prison.

Hello, is this David Crenshaw (ph)?


CORNISH: Hi, Mr. Crenshaw. My name is Audie Cornish. I was the one who did the interview that you heard.

CRENSHAW: Hey. Hey, great to meet you.

CORNISH: Yes, great to almost meet you as well.

CRENSHAW: Yeah, I've been (inaudible) listener of yours for a while now.

CORNISH: I didn't know you could listen to the show. Tell me, like, how you guys heard this.

CRENSHAW: Oh, you know, we have an NPR station here in Alabama down toward the end of the dial. I think it's, like, 91, 92. We listen to it all the time.

CORNISH: David Crenshaw has served 26 years of a 28-year sentence for attempted murder and a number of other lesser crimes. He wrote to us after hearing an interview I did with Alabama State Senator Cam Ward about the state's prison system.


CAM WARD: People in some of these state prisons - you treat animals at your house better than that. It is a blemish on our state.

CORNISH: Alabama's prisons have the highest rate of inmate homicides in the country - nearly two dozen between the years of 2015 and 2017 alone. That's according to a Department of Justice report. That same report found violence had increased dramatically in recent years. It said prisons are so dangerous there is, quote, "reasonable cause" to believe they violate inmates' constitutional rights.


WARD: Many are built on a warehouse mentality, where you put 400 or 500 people in one big warehouse. You can't have enough officers with that kind of layout and not expect there to be some problems.

CORNISH: Senator Ward and I talked about what it would take to curb that violence - plans to build more prisons, the need to fix locks and install cameras, hire more officers and pay them more. David Crenshaw, the letter writer, says the interview with Senator Ward got inmates talking because the issues Ward cited - the overcrowding, neglected buildings - Crenshaw says, they were problems long before the epidemic of violence.

CRENSHAW: You know, basically the general reaction was, you know, how is that contributing to the increase in violence when, you know, our living condition have been terrible for so many years. And throughout those years, we never just felt, like, our life being in danger the way it is today. You know?

CORNISH: Today, Crenshaw says, everyone feels unsafe.

CRENSHAW: Basically everybody incarcerated feels endangered.

CHARLOTTE MORRISON: Overcrowding and understaffing - every system across the nation deals with that.

CORNISH: Charlotte Morrison is an attorney with the Equal Justice Initiative. The group has investigated allegations of abuse in Alabama's prisons for decades. It even sued the Department of Corrections.

MORRISON: We get letters, calls, emails every single day, 10 to 20 of them.

CORNISH: We asked Morrison to listen to some of our conversation with David Crenshaw and the factors that he thinks are responsible for the surge in violence. For example, the staffing issue - Crenshaw says a bigger problem is the way officers today are trained.

CRENSHAW: These officers coming in, they're not being trained. They just throw them on the job. And many of them, being as young as they are, they're basically coming in with the same mentality as a lot of the inmates. And you know, I just look at it like that - just another gang in prison, you know? - because a lot of the times that they deal with situations, they deal with it violently anyway. You know?

CORNISH: You've got an inmate saying it feels like some of the officers end up behaving like they're in just another gang, that they have the same mentality as the inmates - a criminal mentality. Is that surprising to you?

MORRISON: No. I think that - punitive doesn't go far enough. I think, though, there is a violent culture of prison management. We've talked to a dozen officers about their experience in the prisons. And they all say that they had modeling as cadets - by other officers - this use-of-force style of management rather than a rehabilitative management and that that was, you know, quite frankly, frightening for these officers who reported, you know, that they're not violent people; they are not going to hit somebody unless they are hit - but that the expectation is that you will embrace a use of force that is not necessary given the lack of a threat in the immediate environment.

CORNISH: I want to come to another idea from this inmate.

CRENSHAW: Well once, you know, years back, we had quite a few different outlets to deal with our incarceration and, you know, work on rehabilitating ourself so that we can return to society.

CORNISH: He mentions work detail, road and field work.

CRENSHAW: There was other programs, like self-help programs, that was sponsored by the state. And a lot of those programs have been done away with. You know? These guys being thrown up in here. They have basically nothing to do. You sitting around with idle time on their hands. And of course, you know, the depression set in. And when the depression set in, it always come out with a violent outcome, seems like.

CORNISH: What can you tell us about what kind of activities are left for Alabama inmates?

MORRISON: Well, at the prison that we sued when we brought our suit in 2014, there were 1,500 people in the prison. Many people enter prison with substance abuse problems. And at St. Clair prison, there were no drug programs - no AA or NA programs - for the majority of people incarcerated there. But they really had - they had no other programming, as well. And the majority of prisoners spent their time idle in the dorms. They have no structure to their days. And the lack of staff meant that the department had abandoned most security protocols. They weren't doing bed checks. They weren't controlling movement. They're not doing contraband checks. And this led to a drug epidemic in the prison, and hundreds of prisoners then fall into debt to other prisoners. And that debt is enforced through physical and sexual violence.

CORNISH: What do you think about this moment - you know, for an organization like us to be getting a letter from an inmate? The New York Times, you know, received many photographs of what was going on inside the prisons. Does it speak to the fear?

MORRISON: Absolutely. It speaks to the fear, but it also speaks to the lack of access to the courts or to anyone else who would listen. The fact that people are going to the media, I think, just speaks to the desperation that people have in trying to get their complaints heard and these conditions acknowledged.

CORNISH: That's Charlotte Morrison with the Equal Justice Initiative. The inmate we spoke to, David Crenshaw, left us with a suggestion for legislators or anyone else working to reform Alabama's prisons.

CRENSHAW: You hear from the inmates. Everybody that's talking about this subject, they're looking at things from their whole point of view. But when is somebody going to look at it from the point of view of the inmates?

CORNISH: Tomorrow we'll share that point of view with the commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, Jeff Dunn.

JEFFERSON DUNN: We recognize that we have staff that are not abiding by our core values. And we are seeking to identify those staff and address those issues very aggressively.

CORNISH: Dunn has just released a new strategic plan to address the violence inside Alabama's prisons. We'll have more about that tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANIA RANI'S "GLASS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.